What Extracurriculars Do You Need for Medical School?

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Medical schools, much like undergraduate institutions, care about more than your grades; paying careful attention to what you do outside of the classroom. After all, school only takes up part of your time, and they want to see what you do with the rest of it. Unlike colleges though, there are specific things medical school looks for in the activities of their applicants. 

Specifically, medical schools want to see the following in your extracurriculars: 

  • Clinical experience
  • Shadowing
  • Scientific research
  • Volunteering

We will go through each of these in more detail, explaining why they’re important, and how each can be approached while you’re in undergrad. Let’s get started!

Clinical Experience

Clinical experience is, exactly as it sounds, experience working or volunteering in a medical setting. Medical school is a big commitment, to say nothing of being a doctor. These schools want to make sure you know exactly what you’re getting into, and are ok with it. The best way to know what medicine is like is to experience it for yourself. 

There are multiple forms this can take, and clinical experience can overlap with other kinds of activities. You can volunteer at clinics, work as a scribe or medical assistant, do research in a hospital with physicians, or work as an EMT or CNA; there are many different ways to become involved. 

A longer, more drawn out experience is generally better than a short intensive one, as you get to see more aspects of that part of healthcare operations. That said, it is also a good idea to have a variety of clinical experiences, to expose you to the different fields within medicine. 

Universities with attached hospitals and medical schools have set programs to help their pre med students find clinical opportunities. Even schools which do not have an attached hospital often have a relationship with one in their area, to source internships and find opportunities with students, though this can be informal. Speak with pre med advising at your school to learn what opportunities are open to you. 

You can also find these opportunities on your own, by finding hospitals or clinics in your area, and seeing what they offer to undergraduates. Many have formal student volunteering or work programs, and some offer extensive internships.


Shadowing is another form of clinical experience, but we believe it is important enough to warrant its own section. While clinical experience gives you experience dealing with patients, shadowing shows you the medical world from a physician’s perspective. Shadowing is where a student or students follow a doctor around during the course of their duties, to see what life is like as a physician, and what the day-to-day entails. 

Shadowing opportunities are structured and occur commonly, and if your university has a connection with a hospital, it will be easy for you to find shadowing opportunities there. Teaching hospitals have educational heads; you should reach out to these people to arrange shadowing opportunities if your school does not have the needed connections.

You may also contact doctors directly to ask for shadowing opportunities. When doing so, you should discuss what you’re looking for, and show genuine enthusiasm both for learning and their specialty. 

When shadowing, your goal is to observe different aspects of medicine. This means you want multiple shadowing opportunities, usually 6 to 8 for a successful medical school applicant. These should be across different fields. Further, shadowing experiences which are longer and less intense are more valuable than shorter ones; that is a sixteen week shadowing experience one hour per week is more valuable than a sixteen hour experience over a weekend. 

Scientific Research

Research is key for students to participate in, even if it does not directly relate to medicine. While medical research is of course valuable, and scientific work counts for medical school admissions. This includes both lab work and field work, but must be in the hard sciences, not the social sciences.

Research is necessary because medicine is, in fact, based on methods discovered through scientific inquiry, and a sound foundation of scientific knowledge is needed to succeed in medicine. Doing research is seen as a necessary supplement to the knowledge you gain in a classroom, and a core component of your education in the sciences.

Finding research opportunities as an undergrad can take some leg work, but there are a lot of them on every campus. All professors do research as part of their job descriptions, and many of them can use help from undergrads in doing it. Some of these are paid positions, offered through work study. Other schools offer research positions for course credit. You can also volunteer as a research assistant, if neither of the other two options are available. 

When undertaking research, you will need to show your commitment. These professors see a lot of undergrads, and want to be sure you will stick with the assignment after you are trained. Most research is long and boring, and often contains many details which need to be done right. If you work in a lab for multiple years, you may even get a co-authorship on a paper, though this is not guaranteed. 

There are also summer research experiences, which consist of either field work or lab work. This differs from lab work in that it generally consists entirely of data collection, and requires a lot more physical exercise. This is a less common option, but can give you a unique perspective. Note that not all fields conduct fieldwork; you can find summer programs doing so in wildlife ecology or paleontology. 

Lab work, in contrast, is usually a paid experience lasting eight to ten weeks. The rate of pay varies of course, but is often quite generous; $4,000-$6,000 is common. These frequently conclude with a presentation of the research you have been doing. These presentations can also be included on your med school applications.


Medicine is about helping others, and medical schools want applicants with a demonstrated history of doing so. This is best demonstrated through volunteering, specifically in helping those who need it the most. There are no hard requirements for how much volunteering you need to do, but you need to show a commitment for helping others. 

There can be a large overlap between clinical experiences and volunteering opportunities, as hospitals and clinics have many options to get involved as a volunteer. Your volunteering does not need to be directly related to medicine, though doing so is a popular choice. 

Volunteering opportunities can be found through your school, or in the community surrounding it. These are something you will often have to track down yourself, but if you are part of premed student organizations, you can often find opportunities through the other members. You all need volunteering experience after all, and many of these organizations are always eager to find new volunteers. 

Working with Underrepresented Groups

Throughout your experiences, medical schools want to see that you have put in the effort to work with underrepresented or otherwise marginalized groups. This is through volunteering or clinical experiences, and is part of the preparation for being a good doctor. 

Doctors need to work with large swathes of the public, people with different backgrounds, experiences, and outlooks. They need to be able to connect with and help all of these people, and a wide experience and a demonstrated ability to work with groups different from yourself is seen as a key trait in aspiring physicians. 

While not all of your work has to focus on underrepresented groups, you should show a clear commitment to working with groups different from you. This will be touched on in medical school applications as well, both in your essays and in the interviews. They are looking for evidence of your ability to work with these groups, and to make medicine an accessible experience for all those who need it. 

Final Thoughts

Your grades and MCAT scores are the most important factors for your med school application, but what you do outside the classroom matters as well. After all, doctors are in the business of helping people, and medical schools are looking for applicants who show aptitude for all of what medicine will require of them. 

We have covered the most important types of extracurricular here, but don’t feel limited by this. You do need to participate in these activities specifically, but you can pursue other passions as well. I have met pre med students who danced, sang a capella, wrote for the school paper, or played on sports teams. Having and following passions outside of these activities is allowed and encouraged; you just need to make sure you get the essentials in. 

Medical school applications are a challenge, certainly, just as applications to college are. There are myriad moving parts, strict deadlines, and requirements, some listed explicitly, others left to trap the unwary. If you want to learn how we can help you with your applications to medical schools, schedule a free consultation today. We meet students where they are, and know exactly what they need in order to succeed.

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